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Guided tours through the archive of America’s oldest weekly. Got a question? rkreitner@thenation.com.

Great War: The View From America at the Start of World War I

Europe Map

To read contemporaneous accounts of the beginning of World War I is to witness the disintegration of a world. The July 23 issue of The Nation doesn’t mention the European situation at all. The July 30 issue, apparently published just after the Austrian declaration of war against Serbia on July 28, observed that the entire continent seemed to be going mad all at once. Then a week later, Nation readers picking up the August 6 issue would have noticed a surprising bulge in the middle of the magazine: a massive four-page fold-out map of Europe in the first week of the Great War.

The first item in the Summary of the News in the issue expressed hope “for a speedy termination of the conflict and for a final settlement that may make it impossible for those few men who have brought about this calamity ever again to decide for nations the issues of life and death.” The magazine wished, that is, that if there had to be a war, it should be a war to end all wars.

After relating the timeline of the July crisis in all its unfortunate details, the editors reflected on the implications for the United States. Most remarkable is the complete absence of any suggestion that there would even become a debate about whether the Americans should get involved; the world of August 1914 was such that that contingency wasn’t even worth entertaining. In an item about the financial consequences, American isolation was taken for granted:

The part which the people at large will be called upon to play is to accept philosophically such temporary inconvenience as Europe’s troubles may occasion in their banking arrangements, and to recognize the great underlying strength and soundness of the American position. We shall presently learn what it really means to be a self-supporting industrial, agricultural, and commercial state, at a time when the rest of the world is going to war, and when the fighting nations must depend for their subsistence on the supplies of foodstuff which we are better able than ever before in our history to spare for them.

In its editorials section, the magazine laid the blame for war squarely upon Germany. “Her entrance into Luxembourg, her invasion of Belgium,” Rollo Ogden, editor of The Nation’s parent publication, The New York Evening-Post, wrote, “were the directest kind of challenge to England, and there was never any doubt as to how it would be answered. By this action Germany has shown herself ready to lift an outlaw hand against the whole of Western Europe…. By the light we have at present, this at least is clear, that if Emperor Willliam did not directly cause and desire the war, he at least failed to prevent it when it would have been easy for him to do so.”

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That choice, Ogden continued, “was a decision big with fate.” His concluding paragraph is remarkably prescient:

The human mind cannot yet begin to grasp the consequences. One of them, however, seems plainly written in the book of the future. It is that, after this most awful and most wicked of all wars is over, the power of life and death over millions of men, the right to decree the ruin of industry and commerce and finance, with untold human misery stalking through the land like a plague, will be taken away from three men. No safe prediction of actual results of battle can be made. Dynasties may crumble before all is done; empires change their form of government. But whatever happens, Europe—humanity—will not settle back again into a position enabling three Emperors—one of them senile, another subject to melancholia, and the third often showing signs of disturbed mental balance—to give, on their individual choice or whim, the signal for destruction and massacre.

The senile monarch Ogden refers to is clearly the aged Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary, for whose health The Nation had already expressed concern after the assassinate of his nephew, Franz Ferdinand. As far as I know, Wilhelm of Germany was alternately melancholic and erratic. I do not know enough about the Tsar to confirm which epithet referred to him—knowledgeable readers please inform us in the comments below. More importantly, though, Ogden was correct in predicting the three would lose their power to wage war: their empires, not only their dynasties, lay crumpled and discarded by the end of the war.

The next article was by Oswald Garrison Villard, the pacifist owner of both The Nation and the Post, who began his career as a military journalist. “Forecasts as to what may happen,” Villard wrote, “now that all Europe has decided to halt the progress of civilization by going in for wholesale murder on a more terrible scale than the world has yet witnessed, would be utterly futile. The magnitude of the forces involved staggers the imagination.” The entry of Britain, he concluded with a somewhat histrionic, if appropriate, air, “makes inevitable the greatest battles the world has yet seen, to make a mock of our Christianity, 1,900 years after the coming of the Prince of Peace.”

Back Issues is following this magazine’s coverage of the “Great War”—in real time, a century later.

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.


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‘Gross Cruelty and Fraud’ in the Gulf of Tonkin: A Brief History

North Vietnamese boat

A North Vietnamese boat in conflict with the USS Maddox during the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964. (Wikimedia Commons)

In August of 1884, the French navy attacked Tonkin, the Northern part of what we today call Vietnam. The area happened to be under Chinese control, but expansion-minded French colonial authorities sought to ensure freedom of access for French traders.

“The story of French action in Tonquin is a story of gross cruelty and fraud,” an essay in The Nation of October 23, 1884, declared.

Published without a byline, the article—a review of a book about the French in Indochina—was written by Robert Durie Osborn, a recently retired lieutenant colonel in the English army in India (described by an author in 1901 as “a red-hot Radical and a perpetual thorn in the side of the Indian Government”). The French campaign, he wrote in The Nation, was nothing short of horrific: “Towns were bombarded, and all prisoners taken in action were shot or hanged without a touch of pity or compunction.”

Beyond its cruelty, Osborn continued, the war was—for the French—neither winnable nor worth winning: “The revenues of the republic…are not in a condition to bear the burden of a distant and costly war.” Even if France did manage to come out of it with a semblance of victory—peace with honor, perhaps?—

it will be with her resources so exhausted and her military strength so impaired that for many a year after she will be in a measure effaced from the politics of Europe. That the possession of Tonquin will be the source of any profit to France, few can anticipate who know the unfortunate result of French colonial enterprises hitherto.

* * *

Almost exactly eighty years after the French assault on Tonkin, and fifty years ago this weekend, the United States navy reported that its ships had been attacked some miles off the shore of North Vietnam, in the gulf that bears the old French protectorate’s name. Provocatively, the US ships were patrolling in areas where South Vietnam was conducting active operations against the North, prompting the latter, quite understandably, to perceive the Americans as participants in the hostilities. Torpedo boats approached within a few nautical miles of the USS Maddox, which responded with warning shots. The subsequent firefight killed four North Vietnamese sailors, destroyed several of their boats, and lightly wounded an American ship and a plane.

Two days later, American ships again reported that they were under attack and for hours fiercely maneuvered and fired at North Vietnamese boats, two of which they claimed to have sunk. As it turned out, the American ships had only been picking up radar signals from their own equipment, chasing phantoms as Don Quixote had combated windmills. Regardless, President Lyndon Johnson seized on the incident as a pretext for bombing North Vietnam and drastically escalating American involvement in the war. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing such action passed on August 7, 1964, with only two senators objecting: Wayne Morse of Oregon, a frequent Nation contributor, and Ernest Greuning of Alaska, managing editor of this publication in the early 1920s.

“The excessive retaliatory action the President saw fit to order brings us closer to the brink of World War III,” The Nation’s editors glumly observed in the next issue. “He laid all the blame on the North Vietnamese and took no account of the fact that there had been prior South Vietnamese and American provocation to match any that we suffered.”

The issue also contained an essay by John Gange, a professor at the University of Oregon and a former State Department official, titled “Misadventure in Vietnam: The Mix of Fact and Myth.” A brief history of American involvement in Indochina since the French defeat at Dienbienphu in 1954, Gange’s report also bears within it warnings of what would indeed doom the US campaign from the start: the impossibility, the immorality, the stupidity of the mission, the utter waste of resources and lives.

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Gange then assailed the myth known as the “domino theory,” the linchpin of American foreign policy during most of the Cold War:

Stay tuned for future Back Issues posts about The Nation’s coverage of the Vietnam War.

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.


Read Next: Israel must stop its campaign of terror

Why Does This Nation of Immigrants Always Imprison ‘The Other’?

Internment Camp

Japanese American internment center, Manzanar, CA. (Photo by Dorothea Lange, July 1942. National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Over a decade has passed since the United States began its "Global War on Terror," a campaign of dragnet surveillance, mass incarceration, drone attacks on individuals overseas and numerous other actions, many illegal according to domestic and international law. These policies are all deemed necessary, of course, for the sake of national security.  

The United States has always been known as a “nation of immigrants,” a destination for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses to pursue the so-called American dream. But it has been repeatedly consumed by fear of the other. From the Native Americans to late nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants to the Central Americans crossing the Southern border today, there has been a longstanding aversion to and even hatred of ethnic and racial minorities.  

It was precisely this fear that led to the relocation of 112,000 Japanese living on the West Coast—at least 70,000 of which were American citizens—to military detention centers during the Second World War. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which mandated that thousands of people be rounded up, solely because of their race.

In the June 6, 1942, issue of The Nation, Charles Iglehart—a former missionary in Japan—wrote about his visit to one of the camps:

Iglehart focused specifically on the government’s failure, in the evacuation orders, to distinguish between first-generation Japanese immigrants and their American-born children. This raises important questions about who can claim “Americanness” in a time of mass hysteria.

Ultimately, Iglehart concluded that, moral questions to one side, “even as a war measure evacuation was unnecessary.”

While disapproving, Iglehart’s piece—like much of The Nation’s coverage of internment at the time—was not nearly as critical of Roosevelt’s order as it could have been.

After taking a look at some of the reporting of the time, I wonder whether the country has learned from past mistakes—or has the romanticization of American history allowed the resurgence of discriminatory practices in more recent episodes of crisis? Not fifty years after the disaster that was Japanese internment, another minority group became the target of mass surveillance during the first Gulf War.

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In the February 4, 1991, issue of The Nation, longtime contributor (and Maryland State Senator) Jamin B. Raskin wrote: “I wish the F.B.I agents placing phone calls to Arab-Americans would stroll over to the National Museum of American History in Washington and visit the exhibit on the Japanese internment.” He considered the historical parallels:

Unfortunately, “deference to the military’s power” all too well explains why in 2014 it is no longer hard to determine whether the Supreme Court would recognize such a policy as unconstitutional. There are still 149 “high-profile” individuals detained in the extrajudicial prison at Guantánamo Bay.


Read Next: Peter Van Buren on the piece of paper destroying your right to a trial.

Great War: The Insane and Familiar ‘War Madness’ of 1914

Citizens of Budapest

Citizens of Budapest read about the Austro-Hungarian mobilization just after the declaration of war in late July 1914. (Imperial War Museum)

After noting the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and declaring that it was concern for the emperor which, as a consequence of the crime, “first makes appeal,” The Nation allowed several weeks to pass without comment about the political fallout of the deed. Lead editorials instead focused on the situations in Mexico, Haiti and Albania (ultimately connected to broader European conflict, but perhaps not obviously so just yet). With what now appears mordant irony, a scholar named H.W. Horwill—later known for his Dictionary of Modern American Usage—mused, in a laconic dispatch from London dated July 10, on the difficulties of prediction in politics. “Wars and rumors of wars,” Horwill wrote, “afford abundant opportunity for lucky and unlucky shots, metaphorically as well as literally.”

By the issue dated July 30, however, prediction was no longer the name of the game, and The Nation could no longer ignore the conflict already threatening to tear Europe apart—disturbingly suddenly, if along predictable seams.

On July 23 the Austrian ambassador to Serbia submitted the Dual Monarchy’s ultimatum: Serbia must crack down on the nationalist networks responsible for the archduke’s assassination, as well as allow an unprecedented level of meddling by Austria in Serbia’s internal affairs. The terms were impossible for Serbia to accept, and were designed to be so; militaristic elements in the Austrian government had long desired a conflict with Serbia, and the primary proponent of peace in that government, the archduke, was now dead. Serbia rejected the ultimatum. Austria rejected British offers to negotiate a resolution and, on July 28, declared war.

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“A crisis of extreme gravity has developed in the European situation,” the first sentence of The Nation’s July 30 issue solemnly observed. A subsequent note picked up the thread:

A few pages later readers found the magazine’s full editorial on the subject, written (without a byline, as most articles were then) by Rollo Ogden, the same editor of The Nation’s then-parent publication, The New York Evening-Post, who had previously written about Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. The editorial gives an incredible sense of Americans in July 1914 looking in horror at the precipitate escalation of tensions on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

(Bishop Joseph Butler, for the record, was a widely read eighteenth-century English theologian and philosopher who influenced David Hume and Adam Smith. In a late essay, Matthew Arnold praised Butler’s “sacred horror at men’s frivolity.”)

As if in apology for having not kept its readers updated on the developing story for the last four weeks, The Nation’s editorial continued:

The editorial concludes with an unmistakable allusion to the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence:

Back Issues is following this magazine’s coverage of the “Great War”—in real time, a century later.

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.


Read Next: Is Ukraine the anvil of the new Cold War?

Bastille Day, Individualism and the Concept of Progress—in 1939

La Prise de La Bastille

 Prise de la Bastille, by Jean-Pierre Houël (1789)

Are we to ignore the 225th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille?

Sure, there is Kurdistan to think of, the fate of Central American child refugees to consider, a highway funding bill to craft.

But seventy-five years ago, on the 150th anniversary, there were also a few distractions. Adolf Hitler, for instance, was threatening to take over Europe, first, and then the world. The very flame of enlightenment itself flickered and seemed about to go out.

Crane Brinton was a Harvard professor of history and perhaps the world’s foremost scholar of the French Revolution; his 1938 book The Anatomy of Revolution, which divined similar patterns in various revolutions, remains highly influential. In an essay titled “The Bastille Tradition,” published in the July 15, 1939, issue of The Nation, Brinton contemplated the meaning of the event on the eve of what he predicted would be “changes which, in pure logic, are quite antithetical to what the men of 1789 were striving for.” His remarkable essay is reprinted in full below:

The fall of the Bastille was a marked day from the start. Even in Tsarist Moscow enlightened gentlemen put candles in their windows when the news came. The very first anniversary, July 14, 1790, was celebrated at Paris with impressive ceremonies at the Champ de Mars. It rained, perhaps in retrospect a not unhappy symbol; for the democratic faith in which July 14 is one of the holy days has had to prove itself no fair-weather faith. Now, on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the taking of the old feudal castle by the people of Paris, it still looks very much like rain. But, here and there all over the world, men will still celebrate the fall of the Bastille.

What are they celebrating? In France and the French dominions, they are in part celebrating a French national holiday. As an element in the culte de la patrie, July 14 is now so firmly established that it might well survive changes which, in pure logic, are quite antithetical to what the men of 1789 were striving for. Even a fascist France would probably have to make room for July 14, as the anti-clerical Third Republic has had to make room for Saint Joan of Arc. But Bastille Day, even more than the Fourth of July, is not just a national holiday. To the rest of the world, and to most Frenchmen, it is a memorial to the “principles of 1776 and 1789,” to ideas common to Western democracy.

These ideas are to be found in eighteenth-century political writers of almost every nationality, in the American Declaration of Independence and Bills of Rights, and in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen which followed hard on Bastille Day. About their meaning and application historians and political theorists have debated endlessly. Was the French Declaration, for instance, intended to protect the individual citizen against the tyranny of the government, or, on the contrary, was it meant to clear away the complicated web of surviving medieval restraints and associations in order to make the Leviathan state supreme over the helpless individual citizen? Is Rousseau’s “Social Contract” at bottom an individualistic or a collectivistic document? So complicated are political processes that the answers men give to these and similar questions are confusingly at variance. Four years after 1789 Robespierre, who certainly thought of himself as a good child of the Revolution, could justify the Reign of Terror as “the despotism of liberty against tyranny.” Nevertheless, if we go behind words to the sentiments, habits, and ways of life which words crudely bring together and focus, we find that after one hundred and fifty years Bastille Day still has concrete meaning for us.

In the first place, the storming of the Bastille was an act of defiance against vested authority, a dramatic and concrete assertion that men can and will overthrow a government with which they are dissatisfied. It is true historically that the governments brought in by such revolutionary acts have not been slow to claim for themselves all sorts of imprescriptible authority. Jefferson’s generous willingness to contemplate the necessity for a revolution every twenty years or so has not usually been characteristic of successful revolutionists. It is also true that this revolutionary heritage has helped to breed a blind and foolish hatred of all governmental action, a hatted which skillful conservatives have often put to the paradoxical use of preventing political and economic change. Yet both for good and for bad, this vague feeling that there is nothing particularly sacred or final in anything a government does is one of the realities often disguised as “individualism.” It is not, even in France and in the United States, a feeling so strong and universal as to come anywhere near what the political theorist calls anarchism. The crisis over President Roosevelt’s Supreme Court plan taught us that even in the land where good citizens leave their cars under “No Parking” signs and picnic where “No Trespassing” is allowed, some governmental arrangements are almost sacred and final.

In the second place—and this is most important—the revolutionary tradition is tied up with an attitude which, for purposes of analysis, we shall have to call metaphysical. Like most such attitudes, it is not with most men consciously and elaborately worked out in words, as the professional philosopher likes to work it out. But to deny that ordinary men cherish metaphysical sentiments, and possess at least a set of stereotyped ideas to express such sentiments, is to be guilty of a very grave intellectualist fallacy. Briefly, the reason why no governmental arrangement is final in the democratic faith is that in this faith nothing is final, nothing absolute. Governments are made by human beings who cannot possibly be right all of the time.

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It is clear that this operational conception of truth is at variance with some very fundamental human dispositions. No orthodox Christian theologian, for instance, can entirely accept it: it is, however, the basic assumption of what we call natural science, and, if only through the triumphs of applied science, it has played a great and obvious part in the modern world. In its naked form of scientific skepticism, it seems clearly too much for ordinary men to bear, since in our daily lives habit and conditioning must put on something of the absolute. But in such modified forms as the nineteenth-century doctrines of evolution and progress, it has penetrated down into cultural levels for which the intellectual is likely to have a good deal of contempt. Try and tell most Americans that the idea of progress is meaningless! Not even the perfected totalitarian state has dared jettison the concept of progress.

Politically, these notions of government as a set of arrangements necessarily subject to change lead to the third general underlying characteristic of the democratic tradition: that government will change most readily which is conducted on the principle of the freest possible discussion. Since decisions must somehow be made, discussion will be followed by voting, and the wishes of the majority will prevail. But not forever. Renewed discussion will bring new problems and new majorities. From this there follows the apparatus of democratic government with which we are all familiar—universal suffrage, universal education, freedom of speech and of association, guaranties to minorities and to the individual, and, in practice, a party system of “ins” and “outs.”

Such we take to be, in very, simple form, the basic tradition of 1776 and 1789: a government by discussion in which all may take part, a belief in the necessity of change, a willingness in the final pinch to appeal to armed revolution to obtain change. There is a good deal else in the tradition, but on this much .at least almost all the faithful would agree. It is a tradition still alive today, one hundred and fifty years after it received its most dramatic modern assertion, but a tradition never unchallenged, and today challenged with especial vigor. Large parts of Europe which played no small part in forming the tradition appear to have repudiated it entirely.

Moreover, within the democratic states themselves, fascist-minded groups are articulate and aggressive, while the democrats are confused and discouraged. The attempt to apply to the study of social problems methods successful in the natural sciences—an attempt thoroughly in accord with the democratic tradition—has added to the discomfiture of the democrats by casting doubt on some of their fundamental assumptions. The social science of the eighteenth-century founders of our tradition seems now to have been based on an untenable intellectualism. We simply cannot now think of man as a rational animal in the way a Holbach, a Godwin, or even a Bentham once thought of him. Experience has taken some of the rationalistic bloom off “government by discussion.” To say this, however, is perhaps no more than to say that the eighteenth century cannot prescribe for the twentieth—which is in itself a statement in full accord with the democratic tradition. Holbach and Tom Paine may not have the whole answer to our contemporary dictators, but does this mean that there is no democratic answer? Surely not. A renewed democratic tradition may lack the freshness and innocence of the golden days that followed the fall of the Bastille (they were, by the way, very brief days), but it will still prove a going tradition.

Democracy has been a relatively rare political phenomenon, and would seem to depend for its existence on favoring conditions that in the past have been very difficult to maintain. Montesquieu was being more realistic than his vocabulary might now indicate when he said that the mainspring of a republic is “virtue.” He seems to have meant that government by free discussion depends on those who discuss being pretty decent fellows, patient, good-tempered,’ informed, sensible, industrious, conditioned not to expect the impossible from themselves or from others. Thinkers as different as Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, and Machiavelli are in surprising agreement with Montesquieu. But we need not fall into Utopian exactions: the thing is a matter of balance, of something like a statistical generalization. A going democracy can absorb, or keep down, a lot of unfit material. Dozens of potential Hitlers are probably displaying their indecencies in the half-worlds of our big cities, as Hitler once displayed his in a Viennese poorhouse. A going democracy can put up with a considerable number of grafters, racketeers, pimps, show-offs, and Napoleons of finance, industry, amusement, education, and what not. But not with an unlimited number. Your average citizen of a democracy has got to be a fairly good human being, even to the extent of being a little priggish about it.

Moreover, this average citizen must not be too sorely tried by circumstances. Even with such consolations as a revealed religion can afford him, he does not bear up well under prolonged adversity. The decencies necessary to the democratic life cannot long be maintained in a population subject to serious economic want, to prolonged warfare, or to great and unchanging inequalities of wealth and social esteem. A great many men, even majorities, may be lifted briefly into heroism—a battle, a camp-meeting, a crusade, the siege of a Bastille—but few inductions from history are more certain than that this inhuman pitch of effort and excitement can not and does not last long. Populations long exposed to conditions that would try the endurance of a hero do not behave heroically—or democratically. They howl for a savior, and usually get him, and his name is often Hitler.

What is less obvious, and less studied—North Whitehead has made a beginning—is the upsetting effect of industrial and economic changes on the apparently necessary routines to which even democratic workers are conditioned. We have said that democracy depends on change. So it does, but clearly some changes can be made too fast and too recklessly. Democracy also depends on various subtle and none too well recognized balances. It may be that our efficiency engineers are too far ahead of democracy, and that not in a strictly Veblenian sense.

What we have managed to make of the heritage of 1776 and 1789 in the last century and a half has been influenced in large measure by the expansion of our civilization on two frontiers: the external frontier of empty lands in the Americas, Australia, Africa, and Siberia, and the internal frontier of applied science—the industrial revolution. The first, we are told often enough, is almost shut; the second also seems to be closing a bit, but for reasons less unavoidable. There is always the hope that applied science may yet include applied social science. If it does we shall have an almost boundless frontier for democratic expansion.

Democracy is in for harder sledding than it had throughout most of the nineteenth century. Yet it still seems to promote certain ways of life, even disciplines, which lead to adaptability, initiative, and cooperation, and these are assets in the most ruthlessly Darwinian of worlds. It has survived a lot in the last 150 years—dicta-tors like the two Napoleons, contrary faiths, at least two world wars, and some economic depressions which, judging from the newspapers of the time, must have seemed almost as bad as this one. It is now, if in no heroic measure, some part of the personal emotions of millions of Frenchmen, Englishmen, Americans, and Scandinavians, and, though for the moment suppressed, of Germans, Italians, Spaniards, and Russians as well. It is a part of the way we see the world. This sesquicentennial anniversary may be celebrated under a cloud, but the chance that our children will celebrate a bicentennial anniversary in 1989 is at least as good as the chance that in 1973 Italy will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Rome, or that Germany in 1983 will hail the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Third Reich. For the external frontier is as closed to the totalitarians as it is to us; and we may believe that with all our failings the internal frontier, which is the frontier of human intelligence, foresight, and decency, is more accessible to us than to them.

Brinton died in 1968.

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: More from Back Issues, Great War and the Immiediate Response to Franz Ferdinand’s Assassination

Sherwood Anderson Has Some Notes on Ohio to Share with LeBron James

LeBron James and Sherwood Anderson

LeBron James (Photo by Keith Allison/Creative Commons) and Sherwood Anderson (photo by Carl Van Vechten/ Library of Congress)

Clever, indeed, LeBron James’s purchase of a round-trip ticket when he took his talents to South Beach in the summer of 2010. Everyone knows it is the most efficient way to travel.

But does he have something to read for the flight?

Southbound, sources tell The Nation, James was spotted with a well-thumbed copy of Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again.

But northbound now, what will James (and his talents) read?

The Nation humbly submits that James could do worse than Wolfe’s predecessor, Sherwood Anderson, native and bard of the state of Ohio. Anderson’s most well-known work is Winesburg, Ohio, but more apropos, more to the point, perhaps, would be an essay Anderson published in the August 9, 1922, issue of The Nation, titled, “I’ll Say We’ve Done Well.”

From 1922 to 1925, The Nation published a series of essays called “These United States,” with contributions from some of the most prominent writers of the day: Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, W.E.B. Du Bois, Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson. (We have written previously on this blog about the essay on California.) Sherwood Anderson’s essay on Ohio is easily one of the best.

“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have,” James declares in his Sports Illustrated announcement.

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In the essay excerpted below, Sherwood Anderson, though from the western part of the state, arrives at a similar conclusion about Ohio. He does so, however, through somewhat more roundabout, sarcastic reasoning.

I am compelled to write of the State of Ohio reminiscently and from flashing impressions I got during these last ten years, although I was born there, my young manhood was spent within its borders, and later I went back and spent another five or six years as a manufacturer in the State. And so I have always thought of myself as an Ohioan and no doubt shall always remain, inside myself, an Ohioan.

Very well, then, it is my State and there are a thousand things within it I love and as many things I do not much like at all….

Ohio is a big state. It is strong. It is the State of Harding and McKinley…. And now Ohio has got very big and very strong and its Youngstown, Cincinatti, Akron, Cleveland, Toledo, and perhaps a dozen other prosperous industrial cities can put themselves forward as being as ugly, as noisy, as dirty, and as mean in their civic spirit as any American industrial cities anywhere. “Come you men of ‘these States,’” as old Walt Whitman was so fond of saying, in his windier moods, trot out your cities. Have you a city that smells worse than Akron, that is a worse junk-heap of ugliness than Youngstown, that is more smugly self-satisfied than Cleveland, or that has missed an unbelievably great opportunity to be one of the lovely cities of the world as has the city of Cincinnati? I’ll warrant you have not. In this modern pushing American civilization of ours you other States have nothing on Ohio. Credit where credit is due, citizens. I claim that we Ohio men have taken as lovely a land as ever lay outdoors and that we have, in our towns and cities, put the old stamp of ourselves on it for keeps.

Of course, you understand, that to do this we have had to work….

To be sure, the job isn’t all done yet. There are lots of places where you can still see the green hills and every once in a while a citizen of a city like Cleveland, for example, gets a kind of accidental glimpse at the lake, but even in a big town like Chicago, where they have a lot of money and a large police force, a thing like that will happen now and then. You can’t do everything all at once. But things are getting better all the time. A little more push, a little more old zip and go, and a man over in Ohio can lead a decent life.

He can get up in the morning and go through a street where all the houses are nicely blacked up with coal soot, and into a factory where all he has to do all day long is to drill a hole in a piece of iron….Nowadays all you have to do, if you live in an up-to-date Ohio town, is to make, say, twenty-three million holes in pieces of iron, all just alike, in a lifetime. Isn’t that fine? And a night a fellow can go home thanking God, and he can walk right past the finest cinder piles and places where they dump old tin cans and everything without paying a cent….

And so, as far as I see, what I say is, Ohio is O.K.

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: The Nation Welcomes Canada Into Existence… With a Shrug ”

The Shocking Ways We Talked About Birth Control in 1932

Denys Wortman

“The doctor’s here again and it ud better be a boy, ’cause there’s no more room in our bed.”
(This illustration by Denys Wortman appeared in the January 27, 1932, issue of The Nation. The Museum of the City of New York exhibited a major retrospective on Wortman in 2010.)

The Supreme Court’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision of late June returned birth control to the center of the national conversation. One might have thought that unnecessary this far into the twenty-first century; one would have been wrong.

A depressingly relevant—if fascinating—exercise it is, then, to revisit a special issue about birth control The Nation published on January 27, 1932, featuring contributions from some of the most authoritative writers on the subject, at that time and ever. Much of the material in the issue is surprising. Some of it is downright shocking.

An introductory editorial—presumably written by then–managing editor Freda Kirchwey—cited “the overshadowing importance of the question at this grave juncture of the world’s economic history.” In the midst of the Depression, when so many had so little to eat, birth control was treated as an economic issue as much as it was a social one.

It is also worth keeping in mind that the topic motivating The Nation’s 1932 special issue was not employer-guaranteed access to contraception—as is the issue today—but the right to distribute information about birth control at all. The Nation’s January 1932 editorial demanded that “no limits of any kind be set to the dissemination of facts about birth control and to urge its practice.”

The editorial continued:

In the first essay in the issue, Margaret Sanger writes that Pope Pius XI’s position on birth control is evidence of a more profound separation between ordinary people and the dictates of that embodiment of organized religion:

That last phrase is sure to set off alarm bells in the minds of progressives in 2014. As well it should.

One of the more uncomfortable aspects about the rise of the birth control movement in the United States is its intimate connection to the concurrent rise of eugenicism: each saw the other as an instrument for its own ends. Arguments for the scientific pruning of the population served as arguments for the technology which could, with relative humanity, get the job done. But it is easily and somewhat conveniently forgotten that these were not two movements partnered together for strategic or political purposes. Rather worse, some of the early twentieth century’s birth control pioneers widely and willfully employed eugenicist language to argue for the proliferation of birth control among lesser human beings.

The Nation special issue from 1932 is loaded with such language.

The theme develops slowly.

Witness this passage from the essay by Henry Pratt Fairchild, a sociologist who was president of the American Eugenics Society and a founder of Planned Parenthood:

The most significant aspect…of birth control is as an indispensable instrument in the hands of modern, socially conscious man, to be used in the subjection of population growth to the same deliberate, rational, and farseeing manipulation that he prides himself on applying to every other great human interest. This is something quite apart from its utility in solving the problems of personal and family life. It is a phase of that broad, intelligent, scientific self-direction of human groups which can rightly be designated social engineering.

The essay by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, best known by graduates of American high schools as the author of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” is surely the most cringe-inducing contribution to the special issue. Titled, not subtly, “Birth Control, Religion and the Unfit,” Gilman’s essay begins with an excoriation of “admitted defectives living on our taxes. They are not only passively injurious as not earning their own livings, but actively injurious as consuming the livings of useful people.

We are mortified at our moronic average, alarmed at the increasing numbers of those far below it. Further, we find that the unfitter they are, the more lavishly they fulfill what some religionists assure us is the divine command—to increase and multiply and replenish the earth. Confronted with this difficulty, we propose to check the undesirable increase by the simple device of sterilizing the unfit. Unfortunately, when urging necessary legislation on the subject, we meet not only religious objections, but those of the unfit who are voters.

On further thought, seeking to antedate the disadvantageous reproduction, we seize on the benefits of birth control, a practice which does not interfere with the pleasures of the unfit but saves society from their reduplication. Again we are met by the indifference of the unfit as voters, and mere ignorance and stupidity are likewise often backed by the enormous power of religion.

The plea that concludes Gilman’s essay demonstrates as well as any other text of the era how deeply intertwined progressive and feminist arguments for birth control were with what might be called, to adapt a phrase, “a troublesome inheritance.”

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Even on an issue so directly, almost exclusively, related to women, it cannot be wrong to conclude with the wisdom of John Dewey. His contribution to The Nation’s 1932 special issue on birth control is worth quoting at length:

The suppression of information about birth control was ended by a Court of Appeals case in 1936. It was the beginning of a long line of victories for the emancipation of women and for reproductive rights. In the Hobby Lobby case and in its subsequent exemption of Wheaton College from the assurance of birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act, a majority of Supreme Court justices have demonstrated their willingness to initiate a widespread rollback of those successes. History should inform our defensive strategy, as should a renewed and long-overdue debate about what progress really means.

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Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.


Read Next: George Zornick asks if Congress can reverse the Hobby Lobby decision

‘The Nation’ Welcomes Canada Into Existence… With a Shrug

Fathers of Confederation by Robert Harris

(Public Domain)

On this day, 147 years ago, the Confederation of Canada thundered into existence. Birthed by an act ratified by the British parliament in March 1867, Canada was initially comprised only of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In an editorial published May 30, 1867, The Nation basically shrugged:

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

We Denounced the Israel Lobby Back in 1976

UN Caricature

Photo by Pat Oliphant, Denver Post

Noam Chomsky’s essay on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, published in the next issue of The Nation, references the American veto of a UN resolution in January 1976, favoring a two-state solution to the long-festering dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. At the time, The Nation was only beginning to publish articles critical of Israeli policy in the occupied territories; in the 1940s, it had prominently advocated the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine and supported Israel at practically every point since. In an editorial published early in February 1976, the editors supported the Ford administration’s veto at the UN, but argued against its proposed reductions in military aid to Israel.

Yet one week later, The Nation published what was then its most critical article on the subject. Written by Irene Gendzier, professor of history at Boston University, “The Israeli Debate We Never Hear” could in large substance be reprinted with equal relevance today.

Gendzier’s essay concludes with a warning that American policy in thrall to the bellicose delusions of the Israeli right risked losing touch with the reality of the conflict.

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Gendzier’s article represented a turning point in The Nation’s coverage of Israel and Palestine. By the time a special issue titled “Myths About the Middle East” was published in December 1981—with contributions from Edward Said, Christopher Hitchens, Edward Mortimer, Michael Reisman and others—a definite change had occurred. But in the first half of 1976, the magazine’s position remained fairly ambiguous. Gendzier’s essay met with a strong, if tacit, rejoinder in the May 1 issue, which contained an essay by the veteran Middle East journalist Frank Gervasi titled “Myths and Realities: The Rights of the Palestinians.” The first sentence sets the tone: “In the mephitic clouds of propaganda generated by Arab spokesmen…”

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Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: Sports and violence, Israel’s red card

Great War: The Immediate Response to Franz Ferdinand’s Assassination, 100 Years Ago Today

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie depart from the City Hall, Sarajevo, shortly before they were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, June 28, 1914. (Public Domain)

One century ago, at approximately 11 am local time, Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in the streets of Sarajevo. Tensions in the Balkans had been high since Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, and Nation writer Simeon Strunsky had observed earlier in June that pressure from Slav nationalists was “bound to increase.”

But having predicted the event, albeit in very vague outline, did not make The Nation any more capable of perceiving its cataclysmic consequences. In the first Nation issue to be published after the assassination, dated July 2, 1914, it took the editors until the fifteenth item in the news-summary section to even mention what had happened in Sarajevo. “The crime is considered to have been the result of a plot by a section of the Serb inhabitants of Bosnia,” they noted.

In a longer consideration a few pages later—in an editorial titled “The Austrian Tragedy”—the editor Rollo Ogden tried to tease out some broader meaning from the archduke’s death. If The Nation at all dimly perceived how the assassination might upend European politics and, within a matter of four weeks, mobilize armies of a size never before seen in the world, this would have been the place to mention it. This is how the editorial begins:

Ogden notes that an emperor in poor health might prove disadvantageous in what were sure to be unsettling days ahead: “The old Emperor will doubtless make an effort to keep the reins in his hands as long and as firmly as possible, but it is evident that Austria will have to face trials of a sort to test her strength and her international policy.”

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As for the assassination, The Nation disapproved—and in terms quite familiar to us today:

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Back Issues will be following this magazine’s coverage of the “Great War”—in real time, a century later.

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.


Read Next: From the Great War series, “The Climate of June 1914

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